***/**** Image C+ Sound A- Extras A-
starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, Carroll Baker
screenplay by Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat, based on the novel by Edna Ferber
directed by George Stevens
by Bill Chambers Imperfect, cumbersome, George Stevens's 1956 melodrama Giant indeed lives up to its title, ploughing through its protracted story with "fee-fi-fo-fum" grace. Released during a time when films were seriously vying for attention against television, Giant stands apart from the other consequences of dire studio measures besides gargantuan length (widescreen, quadraphonic sound, more location work) by devoting its two-hundred-and-one minutes not to religion (The Ten Commandments, also 1956) or war (The Bridge on the River Kwai), but to the lives of an extended family--an ensemble ethic that had gradually fallen out of vogue following 1946's The Best Years of Our Lives. In a way, Giant ironically serves as a precursor for the sudsers and mini-series that would become small-screen mainstays, and it goes without saying that in this day and age, the cinema leeches off TV with reckless abandon.
Giant nests comfortably on television, its visual sprawl more vertical than horizontal (the DVD presents the film in an aspect ratio of 1.66:1; the letterbox bands are negligible), but it isn't TV per se. The casting of James Dean was three times a risk--in each of his trio of films but especially Giant, he's a wild cub thrown into a tent of circus bears, a performer whose high naturalism stands in stark contrast to his affected co-stars. Yet in the trilogy that preceded his death (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, Giant), instead of upsetting some balance, his slouchy energy heightens the displacement of his characters, vindicating the anxiety with which they're met by family and friends. In Giant, Dean's Jett Rink is first ostracized from the Benedict ranch for essentially being the most virile of the ranch hands, then paid conflicted respect when he strikes it rich in oil. Jett's arc, of course, echoes that of Dean's career: Along with Marlon Brando's, Dean's success heralded the arrival of Method acting for film, a major lasting innovation of Fifties cinema that many traditionalists perceived as somehow anti-establishment.
Stevens applies progressively daring camerawork and editing to scenes with Dean until finally, for Jett's parting soliloquy, there is so much distance between Jett and us that he looks awesomely alone. (Dean himself suggested the procedure for cutting it.) If you consider that this was one of the last times a camera ever gazed upon him (he died a few days after wrapping Giant), the effect is really rather poetic; Stevens could be lyrical when he wanted to (look no farther than the closing shots of Giant and the boring Shane for proof), but alas, the rest of Giant doesn't quite live up to Jett's subplot, where the film's tragic underpinnings lie. (Jett goes from poor friendlessness to rich friendlessness.) Stevens so half-heartedly parallels Jett's ascent with the Benedicts' constancy that Jett starts to feel like a first-draft remnant, the breadcrumbs of a far more ambitious structure--and one finds it difficult to intellectualize the chronology of the film, with its clumsy, elusively meaningful juxtapositions of progress and stasis, new money and old money.
Giant's opening third is in the vein of Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca: Jordan "Bick" Benedict (Rock Hudson) leaves his cattle ranch and returns with a fiancée, Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor), in tow. Ranch matriarch Luz (Mercedes McCambridge), Bick's sister and Jett's mother figure, senses a reshuffling of pecking order in the offing and does everything she can to make Leslie feel unwelcome. (It's even possible that she's trying to siphon her off on Jett, whose attraction to Leslie is transparent.) This ghoulish introduction pays off in the christening of one of Bick and Leslie's daughters Luz (Carroll Baker, a peer of Dean's at "The Actors Studio"), for whom the wealthy Jett falls, but the Oedipal snarl knots there. While it's to the picture's credit that a conventional love triangle never comes to pass (any notion that Bick need compete against Jett for Leslie's affections exists purely in Jett's head--well, maybe Bick's, too, but certainly not in Leslie's), neither does it get worked into enough of a lather over the repercussions of Jett and Luz II as a couple.
In Giant, Stevens's giant heart lies in painting a large-canvas portrait of a marriage. The picture's pre-intermission half covers Bick and Leslie's power struggle, endless husband-wife negotiations to either undo or fortify societal expectations: Leslie wants to be allowed to have ideas, Bick wants to be allowed to tell her to keep them to herself. Here their three children are conceived, inciting further clashes of will as Bick tries too hard to mold Jordan Jr. (Dennis Hopper as an adult) in his footsteps. It's not Bergman, even when they briefly split up and Leslie takes the kids with her, but it is remarkably hip (Giant predates any sitcom with the "make-up sex" joke) and balanced. Due in part to awkward creative decisions, such as a severe accidental violation of the camera's axis of action (a blow to our faith in Stevens's "control," which director Alan J. Pakula characterized as the Stevens style), the film's post-intermission half is clunkier, and in it the Benedicts no longer appear to live on a ranch but rather in a suburban setting straight out of a "Nick at Nite" selection. But it's in this segment that Giant's objective--to redefine masculinity for Bick as something not founded on chauvinistic principles--surfaces, leading to a thoughtful denouement that, like the epilogue of Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth, shows "'til death do us part" from a comforting angle. Giant is a gentle monstrosity.
Warner's Two-Disc Special Edition of Giant presents the film on a DVD-18 in an inconsistent 1.66:1 non-anamorphic widescreen transfer. Although master shots are plagued by admittedly off-putting edge haloes, they often look photographically intrinsic as opposed to like a digital artifact; the image is completely blemish-free and the film's burnt sienna colour palette is always striking in this incarnation. The Dolby Surround soundtrack brings heavy bass to Jett's oil geyser but otherwise lacks for exhibitionism; hiss is nonextant. George Stevens, Jr. provides an optional intro originally shot for the 40th anniversary tape and LaserDisc releases of Giant and returns in an understandably laconic feature-length commentary with co-screenwriter Ivan Moffat and critic Stephen Farber. Also on the first platter are addictive video testimonials (outtakes from Stevens Jr.'s 1984 documentary George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey) totalling 54 minutes from "Filmmakers Who Knew [George Stevens]." Of the eight subjects (Warren Beatty, Frank Capra, Rouben Mamoulian, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Pakula, Antonio Vellani, Robert Wise, Fred Zinneman), Pakula has the sharpest insights. Note that the participants discuss Stevens's entire filmography--and that, to some extent, Giant itself gets the short shrift.
Disc 2 contains snappy companion documentaries, both hatched years prior to this package. "Memories of Giant" (52 mins.) and the Don Henley-narrated "Return to Giant" (55 mins.) recycle interview footage with Hudson and numerous anecdotes, though the latter casts Dean in a better light: There, we hear from locals who have fonder recollections of the enigmatic icon than do his surviving castmates. (One woman claims Dean accepted her invitation to a pyjama party.) Kleenex in hand, Jane Withers (Giant's "Vishti") in "Memories..." remembers filming reels upon reels of home movies that are liberally excerpted in these featurettes; she also has a funny story in which she, an actress with no formal training or discipline whatsoever, swapped notes with Dean, a man so completely immersed in his character that he hadn't changed out of his costume in weeks. As you probably guessed, the emphasis in these pieces is on Dean, almost to the exclusion of leads Hudson and Taylor--a minor shame, since there's plenty of readily available material (with greater astuteness) on Dean already. Additionally, the controversy stirred up by Ferber's source novel is glossed over, leaving the remark in "Return..." that the film pacified outraged Texans with insufficient context.
A nice souvenir that's also a viewing ordeal, the 29-minute kinescope of the "New York Premiere Telecast" finds Chill Wills inviting cast and crew up to the microphone amidst numerous technical difficulties and Jane Meadows shilling on behalf of Muscular Dystrophy. The "Hollywood Premiere" short is easier to handle at 4 minutes, as is the newsreel "Giant Stars Are Off to Texas" (4 mins.); oily Gig Young hosts two final full-motion extras, "On Location in Marfa, Texas" (6 mins.) and "A Visit with Dmitri Tiomkin" (7 mins.). (Tiomkin composed the music for Giant.) A stills gallery, documents detailing Stevens's feud with Jack Warner, thorough production notes, awards and cast and crew listings, and four trailers for Giant (up to the preview for the 1970 reissue) round out this charming set. Originally published: June 3, 2003.